Communication/Conversation

This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, March 2004

With horror I read an article entitled ‘Now You’re Talking: For more parents, communication with their kids is getting a lot easier, thanks to instant messaging’ in the St Paul Pioneer Press. I was saddened to see that this cheerful article was pointing to the “success” of a new form of communication with one’s children. I quote:

“Although it might seem lazy or silly to send electronic messages instead of getting out of the chair and walking into the next room, some psychologists say that technology within families can help break down the interpersonal barriers that prevent open communication.” (John Schwartz, Pioneer Press 2/3/04, reprinted from the New York Times)

How terribly sad that families have such poor communication that they have to rely on teletexts and such to talk to one another! I guess it would avoid the arguments about ‘what time are you coming home tonight’ to simply make arrangements via instant messaging (perhaps the youngsters could have some sort of bleeper devices attached to them which would sound persistently until they came home). But what is happening to us if we can’t meet soul to soul and listen and talk to one another?! This article mainly referred to teens – in my mind this is surely the most critical age to surround one’s child with warmth and human contact. Precisely because teens can be so prickly and difficult to talk to we must make every effort to do so! Deep inside they yearn for this. How abandoned they must feel if their parents have to resort to gadgets to communicate with them.

I think we have to be very aware of how we model to our young children the art of conversation and ways in which people communicate so that as they grow they can learn these vital skills. Conversation is the art of listening to another person, of meeting another soul and truly hearing what he or she has to say. It is the art of pausing before speaking, of not merely spouting out the first thing that comes into one’s head. It is a dance of giving and taking, receiving and offering. It is an important part of our humanity and a crucial gift to share with our children.

Certainly, we need to be age appropriate here, not thinking we can ‘converse’, as such, with our young children. For them, it’s the action of speaking that’s so important. This is why at times we must take what little ones say with a grain of salt: the activity of talking can be more important to them than the conveying of meaning! Part of our job as parents is to translate what our young children say and help form it by framing it in boundaries. By constantly questioning them, giving them choices they don’t need, we are encouraging the active principle of talking. By calmly giving them breakfast or telling them what we are going to do, we help them to listen and to channel their natural inclination to be active into proper outlets.

By teaching children how to listen, how to pause before speaking, how to be sensitive to others, we can start to initiate them into the art of conversation. Even quite young children can learn to respect the conversation of others, to not constantly interrupt or interject. By learning this lesson, the child also learns that she is not the center of the universe and that others have needs as well.

At the dinner table, we can set boundaries for conversation: everyone gets a say, everyone listens, no one makes fun or teases. It could also be that during part of the meal “Mom and Dad are talking now” and the children can listen. This may sound oppressively Victorian to some folks, but my feeling is that it helps children to learn to listen and it models adult conversation for them. It does, of course, need to be done gently, not harshly, and care should be taken that it is preceded by a time for everyone to share their news (especially if the dinner table is where Dad first makes his appearance after being at work all day), but I do think periods of adult conversation which exclude children is healthy. For those children, this could be an important opportunity for them to learn to control what they say and to strengthen their will forces.

Learning to listen is key to healthy family dynamics. Conversation is not the only way to strengthen this faculty: reading aloud, telling stories, reciting nursery rhymes, singing and playing musical instruments, all aid in developing listening skills.

And we also must learn to listen, to really hear into what our children are saying. The two or three year-old’s emphatic “No!” often has less to do with the situation at hand than with a dawning sense of self. With older children, declarations of “I hate her!” could be a way of expressing all sorts of things, ranging from “I wish she was my friend” to “She hurt my feelings” to “I’m too shy to speak to her”. We must listen into children’s talk and reframe what they say to help them communicate. The three year-old’s “No!” might be turned around with a joke or a smile or simply acknowledged by us saying “I know, I know. But it’s time to get into your car seat now.” And with the older child, we might say “Oh dear, you’re upset” and see what she says next.

What about the teenager, the one parents are driven to consider instant messaging, instead of conversing with? How is it that families get to the point that parents and children are such strangers that they can’t manage to talk to one another? My suspicion is that these situations usually arise when the years preceding have not been spent cultivating conversation, cultivating the give and take of speaking and listening.

Certainly, talking to teens can be difficult (talking to younger children rarely presents problems – indeed, it’s often the case of limiting endless conversation!) and one can sympathize with parents trying to find ways to do it. It’s obvious that by using instant messaging, parents seek to avoid confrontation. But in my experience, this is not the way to proceed and, indeed, it’s seeming success might be paving the way for deeper problems. How will these young people learn to communicate with another person? Who is modeling ways of overcoming difficulties and obstacles, of showing a way to reach out to another, hard as it may be? Teens need the soul warmth, the open heart and the open ear of their parents. They need us to be there and they need us to listen. Sometimes they need to hear our stories, anecdotes and advice – but if we’ve done our job up until now, they’ve got all that stored up inside of them. What they need, more often than not, is our strength and loving presence while they bounce their thoughts, ideas and troubles off us.

One really good way to create a space for teens to ‘talk off us’ is to share work with them. A friend of mine, a child psychologist, discovered early in his career that sitting across from one another, trying to talk, was a lousy way to actually get to what was bothering a child or teen. So he started taking them out of his office and working, doing things with them: mopping floors, washing windows, repairing things. And whilst working together, talk would flow. The child would feel freer to express himself and my friend would be able to help.

I have also spent many years working with children in gardens and on farms. Many of these children have been troubled, presenting challenging behavior. By working and doing, aside from the benefits of a sense of accomplishment, the focus is not directly on the child and she feels much more able to talk. Any parent who regularly washes the dishes or the car with their older child knows that this is when some of their most meaningful conversations happen.

Posted on July 3, 2005 in Family Life and Parenting

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